Advertisement

‘This is literally a criminal conspiracy’: Criminals are stealing, editing and depositing mailed checks, leaving a trail of pain across New Orleans

“I was in a world of hurt,” said small business owner Keith Williams. “It’s a weight every day that doesn’t go away.”
Postmarked: Coordinated crime through mail
Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 11:03 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A massive check fraud operation is targeting individuals and businesses both in New Orleans and across the country, resulting in millions of dollars lost and the victims left to pick up the pieces.

According to experts, the criminals are operating on encrypted communication platforms online, selling everything from postal keys used to steal mail from blue boxes to the checks themselves.

The theft isn’t limited to the blue boxes outside of post office locations. Victims who spoke with FOX 8 described checks being stolen, edited and deposited, even when mailed from inside a post office.

Keith Williams, a local small business owner, is one of those victims.

“It’s a weight every day that doesn’t go away,” Williams said.

Back in 2020, Williams sent his secretary to mail out more than 20 checks, used to pay vendors and employees. His secretary mailed them out from inside the Bayou St. John post office location.

He didn’t think twice about it, until he got the overdraft notification from his bank.

“I absolutely was just a little bit in shock for a couple reasons. One, how did this happen? Two, how am I gonna pay these people?” Williams said. “What do you do when you find out that not only is the check not in the mail, even though you mailed it, but they clean out your bank accounts and I can’t write them another check?”

Williams’ accounts had been cleared out. The loss?

$50,000.

“It’s a tough life, and when you get beat down by the system, it’s hard enough to survive without the system not working for you,” he said.

And he isn’t alone.

FOX 8 spoke with dozens of victims of the same crime: mail theft.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office recently went so far as to ask residents not to use the blue drop boxes, to go inside the post office to send mail.

While check fraud through mail theft itself isn’t a new crime, the organized manner in which criminals are targeting post office customers, stealing their checks and depositing, or even selling them, is new.

“We started seeing this in 2020, and it only grew from there,” said David Maimon, a professor at Georgia State University who heads the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Group.

Maimon’s group is interdisciplinary, consisting of academics and students from a range of majors who monitor these encrypted platforms on a daily basis, in markets across the country.

“We started seeing this increase in stolen checks during the last six or seven months,” Maimon said. “These guys have no limit for the amount of checks that you can purchase from them. I can tell you that we’ve seen people bragging about the huge stacks of stolen checks they have.”

Maimon said once the criminals have their hands on the checks, it’s a relatively simple process to edit and deposit them.

“The criminals are using nail polish removers to erase the content from the check. They leave the check to dry, and then offer it for sale,” he said. “The checks go for different prices. It depends on the types of checks, if it’s an individual versus a business check.”

On the platforms, Maimon said, criminals can get anywhere from 120 to 175 dollars for each check. Business checks are selling for up to 250 dollars.

Maimon’s group conservatively estimates the stolen checks from the post office can net criminals around $10 million a month last year to $33 million last month.

The sale of postal keys is also rampant on the platforms. The keys are universal by area and able to unlock post office drop boxes in specific zip codes, Maimon said.

“Those keys go for a range of prices depending on the location, the number of zip codes, mailboxes that the key can open,” he said. “They’re selling the keys, along with specific instructions as to where the mailboxes are, including specific zip codes that you can hit with those specific keys.”

The cost of a postal key is dependent on where the boxes the key opens are located, as well as how many boxes the key opens.

“The keys can go for starting at 1,000 dollars in Miami to 7,000 dollars in other locations across the country,” Maimon said.

The responsibility of investigating stolen checks falls under the jurisdiction of the Postal Inspection Service, a department of the United States Postal Service (USPS).

From March 2020 through February 2021, the Postal Inspection Service received 299,020 mail theft complaints. But inspectors only opened 1,090 cases, around 0.4% of total complaints.

“When mail is stolen, the post office isn’t the victim. It’s the customer that’s the victim,” said Frank Albergo, President of the Postal Police Officer’s Association.

Postal Police Officers, or PPO’s, are the enforcement arm of the Postal Inspection Service. You can think of PPO’s as the officers deterring crime, and inspectors as the detectives investigating it.

Historically, PPO’s would be responsible for everything from patrolling post offices to accompanying letter carriers, Albergo said. He added that recently his officers were even given technology used for crime mapping, conducting patrols in zip codes where carriers were being targeted or where mail theft hotspots were.

“We would make sure mail theft wasn’t happening, and we would arrest anyone who would steal the mail,” he said.

Albergo said back in 2020, the USPS stripped PPO’s of their jurisdictional authority. Now, they’re limited to USPS property.

“Meanwhile, mail theft and attacks on postal workers skyrocketed,” Albergo said. “We would respond to all of this. We can no longer do that. So if a carrier gets robbed, if there’s a mail theft, we can’t do anything. In fact, we were told, if we’re travelling from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and we happen to see a letter carrier being robbed or we happen to see mail theft occurring, don’t do anything. Just drive by.”

PPO’s would act as somewhat of a deterrent for crimes like mail theft. But because of the jurisdictional limitations, as well as dwindling numbers, they aren’t able to even adequately patrol post offices, Albergo said.

“We’re postal police officers, this is what we’re trained to do. And the postal service is preventing us from doing our jobs. It’s inexplicable. You can’t explain it,” he said. “Apparently [the USPS would] rather investigate mail theft than prevent it from happening.”

But how many of the crimes are really being investigated?

A TRAC report from Syracuse University shows prosecutions from U.S. Postal Service investigations have been steadily declining for years.

“It’s a relatively new crime, but it is expanding in volume because from the criminals standpoint it’s relatively risk free,” said Guy Williams, President of Gulf Coast Bank & Trust.

Guy Williams said on a daily basis his bank is educating customers on how to use online banking, encouraging them to never mail checks.

He said it’s a complex web of criminals operating the crime ring, many of whom can never be tracked.

“They recruit local people, similar to drug mules, that allow their accounts to be used for a 10 percent surcharge,” Guy Williams said. “This scheme is almost never cashing the check in the bank. This is deposited into a mule’s account and then transferred away so that they don’t ever encounter a teller.”

But how did Keith Williams’ checks get stolen? After all, they were mailed from inside a post office.

“Some postal workers have been bribed to literally steal checks from the mail. Some mailmen have been bribed to leave trucks unlocked, and then later on report the bag stolen,” Guy Williams said. “This is literally a criminal conspiracy with multiple layers and without a real way to roll up and find out who’s really behind it.”

When a crime involves a post office employee, the investigation falls under the jurisdiction of the USPS Office of Inspector General.

FOX 8 reached out to the OIG to ask if, locally, any investigations were ongoing into current or former post office employees.

“We don’t have any specific information on this at the moment,” a spokesperson said.

“This is just incredible how often this is happening, and how nobody seems to do anything about it,” said a woman who had her check stolen.

She had given it to her mother in Kenner to mail out. Her mother put it in the mailbox in her front yard, and it was picked up by the mailman, along with some checks her mother was mailing.

Days later, she got an alert from her bank informing her that someone was trying to cash her check. Her mother’s checks had been picked up, and someone on the Westbank tried to cash those.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “We saw the check. It’s my signature on the check, but everything else had been scrubbed. But my name, my husband’s name, my address, my banking number, everything was exactly the same.”

“It’s very sophisticated, and it could happen to anybody.”

Keith Williams ended up getting most of his money back. Nearly two years later, he’s still out about seven thousand dollars.

He said the whole situation almost led him to financial collapse. He relied on friends to loan him money to get by, and even had to sell a warehouse to stay afloat.

“I’m old, I don’t do the Internet. What if I don’t have Internet? How am I supposed to survive?” Keith Williams asked. “I never saw it coming. It’s a weight every day that doesn’t go away.”

When asked about PPO’s and their status, the Postal Inspection Service provided a response which can be viewed below. They did not answer questions about PPO’s jurisdiction or the background on the issue.

The Postal Inspection Service encourages people who are the victims of mail theft to call their hotline, 877-876-2455, or visit their website, www.uspis.gov/report.

The website requires users to enter the tracking number for their mail that has been stolen. There doesn’t appear to be another way to report mail theft, outside of calling the above number.

The Postal Inspection Service’s statement begins below:

Postal Police Officers (“PPOs”) do not investigate mail theft. PPOs are the uniformed security force of the Postal Service and play an important role in the protection of employees, assets and mail on Postal Service property. PPOs are armed, wear uniforms, and use clearly marked vehicles to deter crime and provide physical security at Postal Service facilities. By law, the jurisdiction of PPOs is limited to Postal Service real property, and as such, the primary role of PPOs is to provide physical security for Postal Service property at their assigned work locations.

In addition, The investigation of mail theft is the jurisdiction of U.S. Postal Inspectors. Postal Inspectors are federal law enforcement agents who conduct investigations of postal-related crime, such as mail fraud and theft. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service takes seriously its role to safeguard America and will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators that use the U.S. Mail system to further their illegal activity. Every day, the U.S. Postal Service safely and efficiently delivers millions of checks, money orders, credit cards and merchandise. Unfortunately, such items are also attractive to thieves and that is why Postal Inspectors across the country are at work to protect your mail.

See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Click Here to report it. Please include the headline.

Copyright 2022 WVUE. All rights reserved.